What does the government understand by community cohesion?…

… and what role is envisaged for community archives in delivering this agenda?

(This is what the government thinks community cohesion looks like – from the website of the Department for Communities and Local Government).

On Tuesday I attended a seminar at the V&A as part of their Diversity series (see this post) entitled ‘Museums as transformative spaces’. The speaker at the event was Henry Burgess from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport who set out the government’s vision of community cohesion and how museums might contribute to it (but much of this applies to archives too).

(Warning! What follows is a bit jargon-heavy!). It was useful to be brought up to speed with government thinking and government targets in this area. Basically, in the last Comprehensive Spending Review (which takes place every three years) the government set its targets in the form of ‘public service agreements’ (or PSAs) until 2011. The previous round included the following target:

To increase the take-up of cultural and sporting opportunities by people aged 16 and above from priority groups by 2008.

Priority groups included: ‘people from black or ethnic minority groups’. (It’s easy to see how BME community archives could have made a strong case for contributing to this agenda). In the latest round (published last autumn) there is a new set of targets however and from our point of view the most relevant aspect is the new focus on ‘community cohesion’ and ’empowerment’. Indeed PSA 21 is:

Build more cohesive, empowered and active communities

This broad goal is broken down into more specific targets such as:

Cohesive communities:
– Helping to create a sense of belonging among young people from different communities.
– Supporting the integration of immigrants into communities
– Celebrating and understanding diversity
– Increasing opportunities for everyone to participate in civic life
– Tackling extremism, racism and religiously-motivated crime

Active Communities
– Strengthen partnership working between local authorities, the third sector and cultural and sports organisations, including improved commissioning and procurement
– Increase the amount and the quality of small grant funding to support the community sector
– Invest in community anchor organisations and use mainstream regeneration funding to support social enterprise
– Supporting volunteering, particularly among young people and socially excluded groups
– Support local capacity building and local infrastructure to support the community sector

Obviously how you measure these things is incredibly tricky. The government’s indicators of cohesion include such subjective measures as ‘how well people from different backgrounds get on’, whether or not people in a given neighbourhood have ‘meaningful interactions’ with people from other backgrounds and whether people ‘feel they belong’. No doubt debate about how to assess these things will rage on, but in the meantime, community archives ought to be able to make the case for doing precisely these things: in particular increasing a sense of belonging but also providing volunteering opportunities that stimulate meaningful interaction. More of this agenda is to be delivered through Local Authorities than perhaps has previously been the case: again, there must be opportunities here for community archives to partner with Local Authorities. Henry Burgess was keen to make this point with regard to museums and I see no reason why the situation would be different for community archives.

To find out more about this there is a helpful short summary available at urban forum. To really get to grips with it all you need to check out the relevant pages of the Treasury’s website.

Before we get too enthusiastic it is however worth remembering where this ever-so-fluffy sounding government agenda has come from. Burgess did not shy away spelling out the fact that there are direct links to the Home Office’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, the explicit purpose of which is to ‘stop the spread of violent extremism’. There was healthy scepticism at the seminar about whether this was something museums (or archives) could reasonably be expected to achieve. Precisely how community-based grassroots initiatives feed into the ‘Britishness’ agenda is an interesting area to explore but there is no doubt that behind a rather appealing set of policies you may find there is some less appealing thinking. Oddly, the ‘communities’ agenda might in fact go hand-in-hand with the rolling back of the multicultural vision and its replacement by a much more assimilationist vision of collective national identity.

And there’s another new buzz-phrase doing the rounds. Instead of cohesive communities, some people in government are starting to talk about ‘communities at ease’ (spotted for example in this 2005 report by the Deputy Chief Executive of Oldham Council). Burgess described this term as “less difficult [that the alternatives such as cohesive communities] in definitional terms” (?), arguing that it was important not to get too “hung up” on the terminology. I happen to think terminology is very important; if we mean different things when we say the same word then it becomes easier for those in power to push their agenda (for example on things like ‘identity’) whilst encouraging community groups etc. to think they are pushing theirs. We need to know what we mean when we use these words and “common sense” understandings is generally another way of saying “dominant group” understandings. And it amuses me that the military implications of “communities at ease” does not seem to have been considered. What’s the opposite? “communities to attention”?!

(all the views expressed here are my own – not UCL’s or the project’s, I should probably make clear)

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